The kids in their pyjamas wrapped in blankets, asleep on the back seat while Mum and Dad enjoyed the film, courting couples alone at last in the privacy of the car, teenagers skylarking and smuggling in an extra body hidden in the car boot.
It was an idea that originally came to us from the United States. At the time, we were eager to embrace almost anything American, so when Australia’s first drive-in opened in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood on February 19, 1954, it was an instant success.
The opening film was a musical comedy On the Riviera, a three-year-old film starring Danny Kaye and Gene Tierney. It wasn’t exactly a box office sensation, but that first night turned into an absolute frenzy. More than 2,000 cars lined up for the 600 spaces available inside the gates and caused traffic chaos in the suburban streets around the theatre.
Later that same year in Adelaide, on December 28, the Blue-Line Drive-In opened at West Beach. Press reports from the time show the excitement it caused with tangled traffic scenes in the area when thousands of motorists tried to see the opening. Cars were queued for miles and many just parked outside on the side of the road hoping to watch the films from outside the fence.
Showing on that opening night was John Gregson, Kay Kendall, and Kenneth Moore in the classic veteran car comedy Genevieve. The supporting program was a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon, newsreel and a featurette.
Brisbane’s first drive-in was the Capalaba, which launched in 1955. The first conventional drive-in located in Western Australia was the Highway, which showed its first film in the Perth suburb of Bentley in October 1955.
The Skyline Drive-ins at Frenchs Forest and Dundas were Sydney’s first. They opened simultaneously on Wednesday, October 24, 1956, with Frenchs Forest screening 3 Ring Circus and Dundas screening The Racers.
Three hundred and thirty drive-ins ultimately opened across the country.
In those early years there were two nightly sessions, the first starting at 8pm, and a late show at 10pm. In many locations, visibility of the screen from the road created a problem for both drive-ins and local councils.
Many cars parked in the streets and roads outside the drive-in hoping to watch the screen without paying. This prompted a number of councils to take action against motorists parking illegally on the roadsides by introducing fines and parking restrictions.
Of course the hysteria, eventually calmed down and the drive-in became the preferred outing for family groups, teenagers and courting couples.
Mums and Dads found it an inexpensive outing and ideal for the kids who could be all ready for bed in their pyjamas. Teenagers loved to sneak in extra friends by hiding one on the floor in the back and another in the boot. Dating couples were alone in their car and they did what young people in love have always done.
There was usually a well-stocked snack bar adjoining the projection room offering the fast food of the day. The Skyline in Burwood had a ‘quick service’ refreshments menu including, pie with sauce, Frankfurt and roll, assorted sandwiches, sardine sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, hot chips, doughnuts, and soft drinks or coffee. Nothing was priced over two shillings.
On cold wintery nights all the windows fogged up making it difficult to see anything at all. There were nights when it rained, and some cars had to run the engine to get the windscreen wipers working. There were flat batteries, flat tyres and mechanical breakdowns.
And there was always that someone who drove off with the speaker still attached to the rear window.
In the end, going to the drive-in fell out of favour. Colour television arrived in the 1970s and not long after came the video cassette recorder. Added to that, there were new and more stimulating nightlife activities on offer, and the introduction of daylight saving in most states meant a much later start for open-air theatres.
By the 1980s audience numbers had fallen dramatically and the land on which the drive-ins were situated was snapped up for new housing developments or suburban shopping centres. By the turn of the century most had disappeared.
Just 16 drive-ins remain in Australia today.
They have become something of a curiosity for a younger generation, an oddity from ‘the old days’. But a night at the drive-in remains forever an indelible memory for any Baby Boomer, and a joyful, nostalgic recollection.
About Bob Byrne: Bob had a long career in commercial radio spanning more than 40 years before becoming a columnist and blogger at the Adelaide Advertiser. His first book Australia Remember When was published in 2014 and since then he has written four more books all based around the nostalgia theme. Book number six is to be published later this year. Bob’s books are available online at rememberwhenshop.com.au.